Turning her focus to directing, veteran horror Producer Justine Raczkiewicz embraces the narrative possibilities of the darkly absurd in Waste. Adapted from a short story written by Amelia Grey, Waste is a satirical take on the dangers of consumption and unsatiated curiosity which serves up a deliciously grisly dilemma of the heart. DN caught up with Raczkiewicz for an extensive conversation about how years producing horror provided to be the perfect grounding for her shift into directing.
What inspired you to adapt Amelia Gray’s short story?
After having worked in the horror genre as a producer for more than seven years, I began to feel increasingly de-sensitised in an entertainment environment, which was becoming inundated with violent films and oversaturated by the genre, most often seen from the male gaze. Although I enjoyed the creative aspect of producing alongside horror Director Alexandre Aja I was itching to direct something of my own for a long time. I was looking for material to adapt and came across a book review of Amelia Gray’s anthology Museum of the Weird. When I read Waste, it resonated with me and struck a chord. The story was bizarre, darkly comedic, genre-defying, profound and weird at the same time. Every time I re-read it I found a new hidden layer of meaning and it really dug into my subconscious. It also had an incredible female role at its heart.
Olive’s character drew me in as the unassuming girl next door, who is quirky and open-minded but to a fault. I could relate to her fascination with ‘other’ cultures, her desire to push past taboos, and the fine line she straddles between art and artifice, in her never-ending search for authenticity and meaning. Olive is a refreshing female character and a strong female anti-hero. I found the power dynamic between her and her neighbour Roger to be an interesting reversal of roles that play into our fantasies and fears revolving around transgressive desires.
The story was bizarre, darkly comedic, genre-defying, profound and weird at the same time.
Having grown up in a meat eating culture in Poland, a carnivorous diet was standard in society and implicitly reflected patriarchal attitudes. It wasn’t until I read Amelia’s story that a memory returned from the first time I went to a slaughterhouse at age twelve. The mechanised assembly chains, the electrocution devices that zapped animals to their instantaneous death, and the endless rows of suspended carcasses left a mark in my mind. There was something about the detachment and mechanised relation to the natural world, that I understood as a child was problematic, but that didn’t resurface until I moved to Los Angeles.
Waste hints at the degeneration of western cultural and environmental values and is a cautionary tale about the dangers of consumption. What tickled me most in Waste above all though, was the absurdist humour and the tone in which it handled its subject matter. I am fascinated by the mythologies we are taught to live by and believe in the power of absurdism to bring levity to metaphysical questions.
I remember seeing Luke in Under the Silver Lake, and he’s playing quite a different character here… to say the least. I’m curious to know how you brought your actors into the absurdist tone of Waste? Were there any particular methods you used?
I was introduced to Luke through my casting director, Cara Chute Rosenbaum and a talented director friend of mine, Nick Simon who had cast him in his horror film, The Girl in the Photographs, which was also produced by Wes Craven. Not only did Luke have an iconic look, but his villainous acting blew me away, and I knew he had to play Roger in Waste. When we first spoke on the phone, Luke was working overseas so we were only able to meet in person a few days before the shoot, but I knew he was pro and could bring the performance to the table.
The first time I saw Sarah Bartholomew audition for the part of Olive, I was instantly captivated. She had a subtlety and innocence that was unique and unsettling for the role. It was important to me that Roger appear more menacing at the start of the story so that a real reversal of roles could take place later in the film. I had the luxury of more time to work with Sarah and we really played around with Olive’s character, pushed her range to different emotional extremes and created a shorthand together which allowed us to work quickly on set.
In terms of an acting methodology, aside from using Judith Weston’s techniques, I also had my own acting experience in dance and theater to draw from, having studied at Barnard College, The American Conservatory Theater and at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. It was helpful that Sarah was also a dancer by training, so we both had a common understanding and an appreciation for movement in space. In general, I’m more interested in the visual over the verbal and believe so much emotion and subtext can be conveyed through gesture and blocking.
As most of the dialogue scenes in the story are set in the kitchen, it was important for me to use the location in a creative way, and to show Olive had a mastery and ownership of the environment. I wanted her character to feel like a predator, so Sarah is often confronting and cornering Roger in the space, entering and exiting through multiple entrances and catching him off guard. Costumes can also help an actor transform both physically and emotionally to play the part, so we died Sarah’s hair red to make her a little more coquettish, and buttoned Luke up in more restrictive clothing to make him feel a little more stiff and trapped.
To help with character development, I sent both Sarah and Luke character questionnaires and backstories, along with a number of articles about extreme foodies and chefs. For Sarah’s memorable dialogue about the ‘pig to pork’ transformation, I sent her an excerpt from Olafur Eliasson’s cookbook The Kitchen with a beautiful passage about food as energy, and ‘eating light’ which helped guide her monologue about transcendence. That scene is really a testament to Sarah’s acting capabilities because she’s actually a Vegan! She expertly sold soy chorizo as the real thing.
I’m more interested in the visual over the verbal and believe so much emotion and subtext can be conveyed through gesture and blocking.
Regarding the tone of the film, it’s a mixture of deadpan humour, detachment, sincerity and sweetness. I created a playlist for both Sarah and Luke, which they listened to ahead of the shoot and on set. It was helpful that they both had a musical theater background, so they instantly understood the mixture of genres and rhythmic shifts. The playlist had a mix of Jon Brion, Trent Reznor and Clint Mansell, but my favourite song was a string quartet from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster soundtrack. There was a #C minor note in that song that perfectly captured the sentimentality in the final scene, and helped both Sarah and Luke build an intimacy around. That said, there was a natural kinship between the two actors, so I felt fortunate to have worked with such great talent. It made for a memorable experience.
Are the ‘meals’ directly lifted from the book or did you change them up at all?
The meals are faithful to the original story, as I felt that each dish was carefully chosen, symbolic, and had a natural progression in weirdness, so I did not feel a need to change them. Amelia Gray had the perfect choice of ingredients laid out in her story, so I just had to bring them to life on screen.
Chorizo was essential for the ‘pig to pork’ dialogue, tongue took it to the next level of strangeness and borders on the human or animal distinction. It was also one of the things that traumatised me when I was a child, so I had a palpable and disturbing sense memory associated with eating it. As for the last dish, I thought it was both perfectly repulsive and cute at the same time. There’s a great George Bataille essay called The Big Toe which I shared with our actors, which talks about the fantasies and fears we have around that odd digit. It’s a fun read.
Could you walk us through creating a scene like the conveyor belt sequence, how straightforward a shoot was it?
It took me more than a month of location hunting, sneaking into factories unannounced, and driving around industrial wastelands in LA before I found our spot. It was a fateful find when the smell of sauerkraut led me to Kruegermann’s. The factory is a family run operation and a brand I was familiar with having grown up on an Eastern European diet of pickles and cabbage. The owners of the company, Greg and Carl were incredibly kind and accommodating, however, their space was really just the base of what we needed, as their conveyor belt was only wide enough to hold one jar of pickles. We had to customise their machinery and build an extension ourselves in order to fit a human sized ‘wrapped and packed’ Olive.
To create the illusion that the conveyor belt we created was attached to the real factory, our brilliant Production Designer Robert Brecko built a metallic box for the juncture, to make it look like chickens were mysteriously popping out from the darkness. In reality, we had our crew members, including my producing partner Anna Lodej, hide underneath the conveyor belt in a human assembly line and hand each other the packaged raw chickens to place on the moving belt, so it looked like they popped up on their own and gave the appearance of a mechanical loop. We also brought in extra light rentals to fully transform the space into a moody and sinister factory.
When it came to ‘wrapping and packing’ Sarah, we looked into prosthetic doubles but realised it would be unrealistic to use existing dummies and too expensive to create a mould from scratch. As a dancer, Sarah is very comfortable in her own body and was game to be ‘packaged’ herself early on. We tested a number of materials to ensure they could support her weight, tried various breathing tubes and plastic wraps to find the right transparency, and customised the container to her needs. We took all the precautionary measures to ensure her safety and comfort. Robert our designer and his art director were strong enough to lift her onto the belt themselves. We only needed to shoot three takes, so the whole process went very smoothly, and I attribute that to good prep and a great team.
Waste marks your first directorial turn, what made you want to take up that challenge? And what lessons had you learned from years of producing that you were able to bring?
Although Waste was my directorial debut in film, I can’t say that it felt like a challenge, as I had been working in theater long before I started working in film. I felt like I was at home on set and found my calling. It felt natural!
Growing up in Warsaw, Poland, theater was a large part of our culture, so I had taken acting, dancing and piano classes since I was a child, and started directing in high school. My love for absurdism came from studying plays by Samuel Beckett, and my interest in physical theater was shaped by artists such as Antonin Artaud and Polish Directors Tadeusz Kantor and Grotowski. After moving to New York for college and having worked at a number of off-Broadway theater companies, I became disillusioned with the obstacles to creating theater and found my way into film, with my first job at The Weinstein Company.
I felt like I was at home on set and found my calling. It felt natural!
A few years later, I travelled to work alongside Alexandre Aja on Piranha 3D and then we ended up producing six features together, which was like an on-set film school. I was fortunate to have followed his directing process from inception to completion and learnt the horror tricks of the trade to evoke emotion in your audience. From visual effect and stunt heavy blockbusters to moody character-driven psychological thrillers, his mentorship not only schooled me in a variety of genres on a number of scales but also taught me about all the different stages of filmmaking from development through post-production.
Working on set with Aja allowed me to become better versed in the technicalities of cinematography. It helped inform my equipment choices and camerawork in Waste, as I knew that I wanted a mixture of fluid and static shots, so we used a dolly in a number of scenes and also rented a mini-crane. The framing in Waste was inspired by a variety of filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos, as we often move from extreme wide shots of Roger isolated in his industrial landscape to more extreme close-up and detached shots of Roger’s body or Olive’s collarbone. The gross out body horror shots of animal intestines, plastic needles, and surgical implants definitely were more Aja influenced, as was the last shot of the toe floating in the bowl. I’m indebted to Special Makeup FX artist and longtime Aja collaborator Michael McCarty for creating it.
In my theater days, I had also worked as a lighting designer so I understood how light could be shaped to create mood. It was a wonderful collaboration to work with AFI trained cinematographer, Martim Vian who pushed my ideas further, and we spoke at length about how we would move from light to dark throughout the film. When we first meet Olive in the kitchen, it was important to me that she appear delicate and feminine but also complex. For her ‘pig to pork’ dialogue I wanted there to be a beautiful pattern of light cast from the lace curtain so that both light and shadow naturally fell on her face. This lighting design helped create a mood of transcendence so her monologue came from a deep emotional state. In the last scene of the film, I wanted to have a beam of moonlight shine through the dark kitchen window, which is both a metaphorically feminine symbol and a sinister one. Olive sits in its shadow, which further highlights her character’s moral decline.
Other lessons I could draw from in my producing experience came from post-production. I spent a lot of time working with music supervisors and composers on Aja’s films, Piranha 3D, Maniac and Horns finding source music for the soundtracks, but also helping out with ADR, sound design and mixing. I was incredibly lucky to have worked with Michael O’Farrell on Horns, who was David Cronenberg’s long-time collaborator and supervising sound mixer. I would spend weeks listening to him and Alex Aja fine-tune and balance the audio tracks, and developed a deep appreciation for sound design while learning the art of mixing.
It was even more fun to work with Michael on Waste, as he helped me create the mood and ambience for the short. We brought landscapes to life, by sonically heightening elements such as buzzing electrical wires, squeaking machinery, and slaughtered pig squeals. In some of the flashback sequences I used stock footage, and sound really helped bring these scenes to life and feel more visceral.
Another thing I learned from Aja was the importance of creating a musical theme or a repetitive motif in a film. While working with Polish composer Lucas Lechowski, we created a theme for Olive using dreamy ambient sounds as well as both marimbas and xylophones that would appear throughout the film. These instruments have both tribal African and Asian origins, which fit Olive’s anthropological character but also brought out an element of comedy and upbeat fun. Roger’s sounds were more industrial, mechanical, rhythmic and frenzied.
The most important lesson I learned from Alexandre Aja though was that collaboration is key to filmmaking, and a director is only as good as their team. Alex would always surround himself with incredible talent with impressive experience and involve them in his process. When we brought Frederick Elmes, David Lynch’s cinematographer on Eraserhead and Blue Velvet on board Horns, it was a great experience to see them work together. I’ll never forget when Fred took out various samples of female pantyhose and used it to create net filters for the camera lens. It’s these kind of old-school techniques that Aja loved to use. Whether in cinematography or in special makeup fx, working with Greg Nicotero, Mike McCarty and KNB – Aja was always a fan of using practical effects to give a real feel to the film.
Do you see yourself telling more absurd tales in the future?
As a director, I aim to tell stories that are smart and satirical and like to tackle metaphysical ideas through a mixture of genres and tones. As long as something is thought-provoking and emotionally-resonant, I find that it will become transformative and move beyond classification on its own. I like that absurdist stories help us explore contradictions and existential paradoxes. That said, I’m not married to a single genre, and think a good story stands alone.
In terms of future projects, I’ve been developing Waste into a TV series, as I think there’s a lot more fun to have with these characters and their zany world. Aside from that, I’m developing two feature films: one is a magical-realist film set in Poland, and the other is a music biopic about the post-war avant-garde Composer John Cage. As a producer, I’m also developing a cold-war TV series, which is an adaptation of an espionage novel. Otherwise, I am always hunting for new material and open to anything else that may come my way!